Dignity with sleekness: Anthony Trollope, The Warden

Anthony Trollope (1815-82), The Warden. First published 1855. Oxford World’s Classics 1994.

Trollope’s fourth novel is set in the cathedral town (based in part on Salisbury) of Barchester, and is the first of six in the Barsetshire sequence.

Its subject was highly topical: the ‘malapropriation of church funds’ (p. 24) and other financial/corruption scandals that beset the Church of England in the mid-19C, such as that involving the already wealthy Earl of Guilford’s nepotistically acquired Mastership of the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester: from this role he earned an income far greater than the amount allocated for the charity he ostensibly headed (David Skilton’s Introduction gives useful context).

Trollope Warden cover

This rather sweet cover illustration is from ‘The Only Daughter’ by J. Hallyar. It conveys the loving bond between Warden Harding and his daughter Eleanor.

A similarly dubious charitable institution inspires the plot of The Warden. The clergy of Barchester are described in the opening pages as the town’s ‘aristocracy’, and Septimus Harding, precentor of the cathedral for the previous ten years (he’s about sixty as the novel opens) has been appointed by the Bishop as Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in the town – a sort of almshouse for twelve ‘bedesmen’, retired working men with no other means of support. In return for neglible pastoral duties he’s awarded a moderately large annual income of £800 and a pleasant house with garden, while the charity’s supposed beneficiaries, the bedesmen, get a paltry daily allowance (supplemented by 2d daily out of Harding’s own pocket – though this doesn’t make much of a dent in his own income) and a home.

When local physician and ‘strong reformer’ of ‘all abuses’ John Bold takes up the old men’s case, advocating reform of this unjust division of the alms the hospital’s 15C founder surely intended was to benefit the old men, and not the titular head, the stage is set for a contentious and litigious conflict, for Archdeacon Grantly, married to Harding’s elder daughter Susan, is a fierce defender of the church’s reputation, and he enlists the services of the Sir Abraham Haphazard, the highest and toughest QC in the land, a ‘machine with a mind’, driven only by ‘success’, to fight the reformers. Meanwhile a campaigning, reforming newspaper ‘The Jupiter’, based loosely on The Times, takes up the case on the old men’s behalf, printing highly rhetorical and sensational stories that fuel the personified ‘Scandal’ in the town and its ‘murmurs’ and ‘whispers’ about the injustice of the Warden’s position.

To complicate things further, the naively (over-)zealous reformer Bold is in love with Harding’s younger daughter Eleanor, and she intervenes on her father’s behalf, knowing he is too mild-mannered and self-effacing to put up a fight for his own benefit.

The novel is charming, amusing and highly entertaining, and written (mostly) with great zest, pace and gentle irony. It’s weakened, however, by Trollope’s tendency to hedge his moral bets. On the one hand, he presents the reforming side as hypocritical, amoral and misguided; Bold, for example, is described thus by the narrator:

There is something to be admired in the energy with which he devotes himself to remedying evil and stopping injustice; but I fear that he is too much imbued with the idea that he has a special mission for reforming. It would be well if one so young had a little more diffidence himself, and more trust in the honest purposes of others.

Although there’s a whiff of irony in this critique of sanctimonious reformers, it still portrays Trollope’s view: that the church may well have some corrupt or greedy individuals, but that by and large as an institution it would be excessive to reform it from top to bottom; individuals are flawed, not institutions, he seems to suggest. Bold is comforts himself smugly in the ‘warmth of his own virtue’, according to this partial narrator.

On the other hand, the church is presented as a deeply corrupt, decadent institution full of ‘grasping priests’ and ‘gorged on wealth’ that’s badly in need of reform. But again it’s just a few individuals who are singled out for critical appraisal. Chief of these is Dr Grantly, the archdeacon and Bishop’s son; here’s that same ironical first-person, garrulous narrative voice describing him early on:

He has all the dignity of an ancient saint with the sleekness of a modern bishop; he is always the same; he is always the archdeacon; unlike Homer, he never nods…[and has a] sonorous tone and lofty deportment which strikes awe into the young hearts of Barchester, and absolutely cows the whole parish of Plumstead Episcopi [his parish].

‘Sleekness’ is excellent.

Later he’s likened to an ‘indomitable cock’ sharpening his spurs, readying for combat with the Warden, who he perceives as full of weakness and treachery (towards the church and the ‘sacred justice of al ecclesiastical revenues’); his ‘holy cause’ is to defend ‘the holy of holies from the touch of the profane’ and ‘pestilent dissenters’ – the reformers and the insurrectionary, ungrateful bedesmen. Oh, and he secretly reads Rabelais, hiding and locking the salacious book away when visitors call, and pretending instead to be composing sermons.

These bedesmen, largely illiterate old men, like Dickens’s trade unionists in Hard Times, are shown (with one noble but rather sycophantic exception, called Bunce) motivated by avarice rather than a sense of moral rectitude; their advocates are ‘raising immoderate hopes’ in their previously contented minds, and making them ‘hostile’ towards their kindly Warden. Here’s that sententious, floridly oratorical narrative voice on this in ch. 4:

Poor old men! Whoever may be righted or wronged by this inquiry, they at any rate will assuredly be only injured: to them it can only be an unmixed evil. How can their lot be improved? All their wants are supplied; every comfort is administered; they have warm houses, good clothes, plentiful diet, and rest after a life of labour; and, above all…a true and kind friend to listen to their sorrows, watch over their sickness, and administer comfort as regards this world, and the world to come!

This is both disingenuous and patronising – these men are given a pittance to live on, so would benefit greatly from a larger income. Trollope seems to side with the establishment view (like Grantly’s) that money is wasted on the labouring classes – they can’t appreciate the finer things of life, and don’t therefore deserve them. And Trollope ensures at the end that they don’t receive an extra penny when the Warden does the decent, honourable thing and resigns, unable to justify his ‘hated income’; ‘I have no right to be here’, he confesses  (and detects a savour of ‘simony’ in an offer of an alternative living by Grantly near the end) – a stance much to the horror and against the urgings of the hypocritical archdeacon, self-serving lawyers and fake-news-purveyors of the Jupiter.

Rather like Dickens’s equivocal position on social injustice and industrial exploitation of workers in Hard Times,published the previous year, Trollope seems genuinely disconcerted by the injustices he portrays, but can’t bring himself to turn his satirical guns on to the culpable institutions or their representatives. Instead he represents Warden Harding as a meek, saintly, pious and harmless old man, while the warring factions, as I’ve indicated, are all tainted with self-interest, self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Whereas Dickens seems to think that if the poor can just have circuses and be amused, all will be well in the world, Trollope suggests in this novel that if do-gooders just kept their noses out of other people’s business, the few good men like Harding would keep in check the venality and greed of the few bad, weak men who spoil a system which, though flawed, serves pretty well most of the time.

I realise I’ve started off sounding rather negative about this novel; so I need another post to indicate some of this novel’s virtues and delights. And maybe a few more cavils.

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27 thoughts on “Dignity with sleekness: Anthony Trollope, The Warden

  1. I live about a five minute walk from the Hospital of St Cross, which you mention as one of the real-life models for the Warden (locally we like to think it is our book, rather than Salisbury’s) and have always been intrigued by the moral framework in this book: I like the book very much, but not sure about the logic or rightness of the principles within. Will be interested to hear your further comments.

    • Moira: I hope to redress the balance a little next time. But I couldn’t accept the criticism of injustice while condoning its instrument on the flimsy grounds that the Warden was a sweet, inoffensive man while his opponents were hypocrites. Trollope has skewed the situation to suit his admittedly humane moral purpose. But it has many merits, as I shall try to show in my next post. Just had to get these objections down

  2. Yes, though I’m trying to discount that this one is one of my favourites, I think you’ve been a bit hard on Trollope. I think it’s the light touch in the satire that makes it all the more effective, but I also think that part of the agenda is to show that reformists can indeed be brutal in achieving their ends, and that sometimes they hit the wrong target. In other words, any kind of reform – no matter how much it is needed, root and branch and all – has unintended victims.

    • Lisa – I just found the irony and satire cancelled itself by attacking both sides, but agree that your explanation makes sense. Harding could have stayed on as Warden, continuing his benign work, and relinquished his disproportionate share of the hospital fund. The main objections to this seem to be class based: the bedesmen don’t need or deserve a windfall, whereas Harding and his daughter are worthy occupants of their paradise- all’s right with the world as it is, imperfect. Perfection is cruel and sterile.

  3. “Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in the town – a sort of almshouse for twelve ‘bedesmen’, retired working men with no other means of support.”

    As I am reading this, the state of Lousiana just sent 37,000 notifications of eviction to impoverished elderly and handicapped residents of nursing homes there after Louisiana cut its Medicaid-related budget items and refused to raise taxes. Some may, literally, end up on the street, and even if this is resolved in some haphazard way, the stress will likely kill someone.

    When you start envying the beadsmen for having, at least, a bed, your country is in a LOT of trouble.

    Thanks, Simon, nicely written.

    • Thanks, Maureen. My indignation as far as the novel is concerned extends to Trollope’s sticking his finger in the scales (to use DH Lawrence’s term about the novelist interfering with the moral integrity of their work). At the end, if it’s not too much of a spoiler, even when Harding has gone, the old men get nothing extra – in fact they’re worse off, because his personal donation of two pence a day is no longer there. Harding simply announces to them, as he says goodbye, ‘The surplus would not go to you; your wants are adequately provided for, and your position could hardly be improved.’ Sadly, they accept this with fawning gratitude, as no more than their just desserts for having turned against him – they’re left with ‘sore consciences and shamed faces’, having driven this harmless chap from his much loved home. And that’s it. Where does this thunderbolt come from? We aren’t told if it’s true, or why, or who decided it. And as the old men die off, they become divided and envious of each other; the gardens become overgrown, weeds take over the paths, and the hospital is a ‘disgrace’ to the town. This is surely the novelist’s finger in the scales – he wants to ensure we’re left in no doubt that the reformers are to blame – they’ve raised people’s hopes and let them be dashed. Really? I don’t buy it.

  4. Very interesting review, Simon. I’ve started this a few times but never got very far into it. The moral dilemmas you discuss *do* sound interesting – I shall have to one day really get into this book! 🙂

    • As I say in my post, and my reply to Maureen’s comment, I really dislike Trollope’s stance on the moral positions in the novel – but there’s much in it to admire, too. Plus more to find less pleasing…I’ve got all the Barsetshires and Pallisers waiting for me from a recent charity shop haul, but I’m wondering if I’ll summon the enthusiasm – and time – to work through them all. I’ll certainly persevere for now. Just finished J. Barnes’s new one for a total change of tone, era and style.

  5. Much as I love Trollope, The Warden is definitely not my favourite. I prefer Barchester Towers by far. But I think you are too hard on him. He is the quintessential Victorian story-teller. He manages to create a world that gives the impression of existing not only within, but also outside his texts. He is no socialist ! Rather like Jane Austen and Thackeray before him, he fully accepts the traditional moral and social standards of his time. He satirizes those who through snobbery, or greed and ambition attempt to upset the stable, humane and thus happy order of things inherited from the past. But he is above all a master of characterization through dialogue:
    ‘The work of a bishop of the Church of England, ‘ said Dr Proudie, with considerable dignity, ‘ is not easy. The responsability which he has to bear is very great indeed.’
    ‘Is it ?’ said Bertie , opening wide his wonderfu blue eyes. ‘Well; I never was afraid of responsability. I once had thoughts of being a bishop, myself.’
    ‘Had thoughts of being a bishop !’ Said Dr Proudie, much amazed.
    ‘That is, a parson—a parson first, you know, and a bishop afterwards. If I had once begun, I’d have stuck to it. But, on the whole, I like the Church of Rome the best.’
    The bishop could not discuss the point, so he remained silent. (Barchester Towers, Ch. 11)
    No more is needed. Dr Proudie and Bertie Stanhope are engaged in perfectly natural small talk, yet they give themselves away in every word they utter…
    I think that when reading Trollope and Dickens we should leave our own political standards aside, because they are irrelevant.
    As for Hard Times, David Lodge wrote a very illuminating essay (How successful is Hard Times ?) in Working with Structuralism: essays and reviews on nineteenth and twentieth century literature, in which he pinpoints the links between HT, popular theatre and pantomime. I’m sorry, I’ve already been too long, but I could go on for hours on these two ! 🙂

    • Izzy: touché! Oddly, I was just about to publish my second post when I saw this comment of yours. I agree I was a little wilful in my criticism of Trollope, so hope this second post goes a little way in mitigation. I do find things to admire in this novel, and it’s maybe personal bias against his conservative complacency. I’d forgotten that Lodge essay, so shall look it up again. And thanks for that snippet of AT’s dialogue – yes, he can write! Watch this space for my sequel post.

    • Hi Izzy and Simon. I love David Lodge’s essays, even more than his fiction. He wrote a wonderful one on adapting Dickens (“Martin Chuzzlewit”) for a BBC series, and seems to have a gift for synthesizing concepts across a wide range of art forms, with wonderful nuggets of insight.

  6. Maureen, (if ever you come back here), I totally agree with you about Lodge’s books and essays. He must have been a wonderful university teacher (I would gladly have exchanged two of my own teachers for him !) . One of his novels stands out (in my opinion) for that particular reason: Nice Work.
    Simon, that book has already been on my wishlist for some time, your recommendation makes it a must.

    • Izzy: I enjoyed Nice Work, too, and the TV version was pretty good, I seem to remember. I liked all of his campus novels (or were there only two?) Malcolm Bradbury’s are enjoyable, too, like Eating People Is Wrong, his first. To the Hermitage I vaguely remember was entertaining, too.

      • Three in the trilogy: Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work.
        I really should have read Lodge’s Author, Author too about Henry James, but it came out the same year as Colm Toibin’s The Master…

          • Lodge IS lovely and I’ve attended a few of his lectures at Birmingham when I was a student and he an honorary professor; also I’ve had a drink with him after a talk when he took a great interest in my husband’s job in Psychology. Alas, his memoirs are apparently not that interesting!

          • Just Googled DL: he’s 83 now. He’s always struck me as a decent chap. I’d read some lukewarm reviews of his autobiography, too. Christopher Ricks was Prof of English at Bristol when I was an undergrad; went to a ‘meet and greet new students’ party at his house in Clifton in my first year, feeling very nervous and provincial – and was THE FIRST ONE THERE. Had to try to make small talk with him and his equally terrifying wife – or tennis coach, she looked very Scandinavian and fierce – until other guests mercifully started to arrive and I could go and hide. I recall one of his lectures as he strode about on the platform, Coke in hand (drink, not drug), saying, ‘I’m sure you’re all looking at my groin’. Or maybe I just made that up.

  7. I didn’t know there was a TV version of NW. I’m going to check this out, see if I can download it. I haven’t read EPIW, but I’ve read The History Man, a campus novel too, and absolutely loved it. I seem to remember that it had more bite than Lodge’s novels.

  8. Found it ! Thank you, Simon. There’s even a TV version of The History Man available on dvd ! I wonder how this one works as a film, because I remember Bradbury’s writing style, how it matched his main character’s stance, his lifestyle, his politics…

  9. An interesting and thoughtful review and I (lagging like mad) will now go back to the second post. He does haver but I love the way he shows all human life and creates a world. I really must get back to him as I’m half-way through.

    • Thanks, Liz. I struggled with the post, as I ultimately enjoyed the novel, but had problems with the socio-political stance of the author. Which is not a particularly mature approach, I know. But I try to be honest in these posts.

  10. Fascinating. In all honesty you’ve rather put me off it. There seems a certain sanctimony in the well-off telling the poor that they won’t be happier for more money. Perhaps not, but at least they’ll be miserable in better comfort.

    If more money, more problems were true it would be the easiest solved hardship in the world.

    Now, off to read your second piece to see if I’m re-tempted by your further thoughts.

    • Although I find AT’s socio-political and moral position dubious, the novel is otherwise very entertaining, with some lively characterisation and pointed satire – though the targets here aren’t too subtly attacked (Dickens in particular is more than just Mr Popular Sentiment, though admittedly he can be sentimental; perhaps it’s sour grapes on T’s part, and The Warden sold in tiny numbers).

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